The Definitive Guide to ImageMagick

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This book review was published by Slashdot, 2006-03-13.

Definitive Guide to ImageMagick

To modify a digital image, most computer users turn to a GUI-based image processing application, such as Photoshop. However, while Photoshop and many other similar programs can process multiple images in batch mode, they still require manual usage, and thus typically are unable to process images via a command line or within a second application. Those capabilities call for a programmatic digital image manipulation tool such as ImageMagick, which is explored in a relatively new book, The Definitive Guide to ImageMagick.

The author of this title is Michael Still, a programmer who gained experience with ImageMagick during his eight years of working on imaging applications, as well as writing articles on ImageMagick for IBM DeveloperWorks. This book was published on 20 December 2005, by Apress, with ISBN 978-1590595909. Apress maintains a Web page for the title, where a visitor can purchase the electronic version of the book, read its table of contents, or download its source code or a sample chapter (Chapter 4 — Using Other ImageMagick Tools) in PDF format. They also have a link where readers can submit errata — and apparently be the first to do so, as there are no existing errata listed on the Web page.

The book's 335 pages are organized into a dozen chapters, following an introduction and a few other standard sections, including a forward written by ImageMagick's principal architect, Christy, who briefly explains the product's 20 years of history, development, and lack of decent documentation. That is where this book is intended to fill the gap, and Christy notes that most future questions about ImageMagick will be answered by pointing people to this book, as is also noted on ImageMagick's homepage.

The first chapter of the book explains how to install and configure ImageMagick, for several Linux distros, as well as Microsoft Windows — using the precompiled versions, or by compiling from ImageMagick's source code. The chapter is wrapped up with a brief description of ImageMagick's online help, debug output, verbose output, and version information. The next ten chapters fall into two categories: ImageMagick usage as a standalone, and from within other applications. The first category of chapters covers basic image manipulation, compression, other metadata, ImageMagick tools, artistic transformations, other image transformations, and drawing commands. The second category discusses how to utilize ImageMagick from within programs written in Perl, C, Ruby, and PHP. The 12th and final chapter is quite brief, and describes where to find online help (websites, blogs, mailing lists, and forums) and where to report any apparent bug in ImageMagick.

For Windows users, the first chapter may begin badly, as the author fails to explain which precompiled version the reader should select if they wish to install ImageMagick on a Windows PC. For each version, there are four flavors to choose from. But which one is right for the reader? "static" vs. "dll"? "Q16" vs. "Q8"? What are the differences? The ImageMagick website and FTP file listings appear to have no README file or installation help file to explain which flavor you should download. The book should provide some assistance here, but does not. The former topic, static versus DLL, is mentioned only in reference to compiling ImageMagick from source — information which the reader will probably never see, should they choose to install the precompiled binaries and get started on ImageMagick as quickly as possible.

The latter topic is not covered at all — not even in the index, where a "quantum depth" entry would be useful. For those readers who are interested, "Q8" indicates 8 bits-per-pixel components, and "Q16" means 16 bits-per-pixel. The latter allows one to read or write 16-bit images without losing precision, but requires twice as much resources as Q8. Apparently Q16 is the best choice for medical or scientific images, or those with limited contrast. Otherwise, Q8 should be sufficient, and offers greater performance.

The material most likely to be read, referenced, and valued in this book, is the chapters devoted to explaining how to use ImageMagick for resizing, compressing, transforming, and drawing digital images. Most of these first-category chapters begin with a concise summary of the theory put into practice throughout the rest of the respective chapter — a wise inclusion in each case, since even the most experienced computer programmers and other users have had no instruction or experience in image theory. All of these chapters do a competent job of explaining what each ImageMagick command is used for, and then illustrating it with a straightforward example.

The most glaring deficiency in these chapters, and the book as a whole, is that far too many of the book's figures (digital images, naturally) fail to reflect what is intended to be conveyed by each figure. This is primarily because they are all in black-and-white, and in many cases do not offer the size and resolution necessary. In other words, there are many cases where the "before" and "after" images look almost identical. In the cases of color manipulation, most of those black-and-white images are of little value — occasionally laughably so.

The second-category chapters, covering ImageMagick usage with Perl, C, Ruby, and PHP, proved disappointing, primarily due to their narrow focus, and lack of tips, recommendations, and coverage of the APIs' capabilities. The details are presented in the form of a single example for each language. For instance, the Perl chapter devotes too many pages to source code listings of a Perl program written by the author, that few readers would probably download from the publisher's website, much less read.

Nonetheless, this book should be useful to any programmer interested in making the most of ImageMagick's capabilities, and that is not just because it is the only ImageMagick book on the market. Michael Still certainly had his work cut out for him when he agreed to document the bulk of what ImageMagick can do. It is unfortunate that the color images that he created for the book cannot be seen by the reader, and that the Windows binary versions and ImageMagick APIs, were given short shrift. We can hope that future editions of this book will be significantly strengthened, such as including color and higher resolution images where needed — even if it requires grouping them together within the book, if that reduces production costs.

Lastly, it should be mentioned that, as a smaller technical publisher, Apress is not resting on its laurels, and is not only scheduled to release an impressive variety of programming books this year, but their customer support — at least in my experience — was outstanding, as there was a problem with the shipping of this title, and they bent over backwards to make it right.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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